Book review: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
I learned about this book from a discussion elsewhere about the North Korea situation.
The author is Barbara Demick, an American journalist and Beijing bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times. She interviewed many people who defected from North Korea and came to live in South Korea.
The use of "Ordinary Lives" in the title is a little bit misleading – but very effective in getting the stories across – because those lives were ordinary only in terms of North Korea. None of us in the West would regard those lives as ordinary in any way.
The other part of the title, "Nothing to Envy", comes from one of the many patriotic songs taught to North Koreans almost from birth. Everything is so perfect, thanks to the Great Leader, that there's nothing beyond the borders that any North Korean could possibly want. And, also, there's a lot beyond the borders to be feared. North Koreans are given everything they need: education, jobs, housing, food, clothing, health care, entertainment. But what people get is determined by their status – mostly whether they get accepted into the Workers' Party and, of course, the higher up the ladder, the more you get.
The system started to fall apart in the 1990s when there was a major famine. It became very difficult for ordinary people when food became scarce, because the Great Leader is the equivalent of a god, and North Korea is the equivalent of the Garden of Eden. How can one continue to believe in all that when adults and children died from starvation, and those children who survived had permanently stunted growth from malnutrition? And yet to disbelieve meant running the risk of imprisonment in labour camps, not just for the "traitors" but for the rest of their families for three generations – parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, cousins. It's a chilling way to control people.
One interesting aspect that I've learned from a world history course is that Korea, like other countries in that part of the world, had adopted Confucianism centuries ago. Confucianism isn't a religion as such, as it doesn't involve an external deity. But one of the important aspects of Confucianism is "filial duty", which is the respect that must be shown to one's elders – including one's ancestors. The cult of the Kims exemplifies that, because every home is expected to have pictures of the Kims displayed in the main room, with a cloth that is solely used to dust the pictures every day, and the expected daily family routine is for everyone to bow in front of the pictures and give thanks to the Leader. Given that homes, even in rural areas, are crowded close together, and probably with paper-thin walls, any family that fails to speak such thanks loudly is likely to be reported by a neighbour.
And, yet, as the doubts grew, the outside world started creeping in. Some people have radios, which are manufactured to only pick up North Korean stations; fewer have TVs which are also restricted; similarly with computers. But the geeks have found ways of circumventing those restrictions.
There's also an increasing degree of illegal crossing between North Korea and China. Some of that is just commercial. Those North Koreans who survived the famine did so by cultivating their own crops in the more rural areas, so had something to trade for what was on offer in the Chinese markets just over the border. Some North Koreans have video players, more recently some have acquired DVD players, and smuggled DVDs take up much less space. No matter how hard the North Korean hierarchy tries, it can't stem the tide of technological advancement.
Despite the recent posturing of the North Korean hierarchy, which is worrying, the regime is beginning to fall apart. It just isn't possible these days for a country to continue to be so isolated from the rest of the world. Knowledge of the rest of the world is continuing to creep in from outside, and knowledge of the excesses of the higher levels of the hierarchy is continuing to creep down to the middle ranks.
But there's a downside to that:
China restricts those who cross the border from North Korea from accessing the South Korean embassies. That is understandable, because China is really the only country that North Korea has trading links with, so China is having to tread a fine line. What China doesn't want is a totally out-of-control North Korea with whatever nuclear weapons North Korea actually has. And also, China doesn't want to open the floodgates because it doesn't have the means to cope with the potentially vast numbers of refugees. Most of those North Koreans who make it to South Korea do so via Beijing with forged documents (so, expensive), or after an arduous journey and through another guarded border, this time with Mongolia, where North Korean refugees can get travel permits to South Korea from the South Korean embassy.
But that's not the end of the problems. North Koreans who make it to South Korea often have tremendous difficulties in integrating into South Korean society. Partly because their accent is recognisably different; partly because they're shorter due to malnutrition; and partly because it's a completely different world. And it is such a different world – most noticeably because in South Korea there's electricity 24/7, and that's not just amazing for North Koreans, they also have to adjust to the consequent light and noise, as well as the shops and restaurants. South Korea does have a residential campus for North Korean refugees, to help them make that adjustment, and they also give financial aid to the graduates. Some of the refugees took years before they could even wear jeans or brightly coloured clothing – symbols of the decadent West. But there are limits to the numbers of refugees that South Korea could assist in that way.
The North Korean regime will inevitably crumble, but it won't be like the Berlin Wall coming down. Those North Koreans who already know that what they've been led to believe is just BS will still have problems adjusting to the outside world. Those North Koreans who still believe will be utterly devastated psychologically. It's likely that the trigger to the eventual breakdown will be another severe famine. But what will be needed then won't be just an humanitarian response to a famine or a war, which could be helped by providing food and shelter and security. There will be vast numbers of people who will be traumatised simply from being set free.